At the (Baseball) Movies with Roger Ebert

Not that I have to remind anyone here, but today marks the start of the first full week of the baseball off-season. With the end of the World Series, all that we have to look forward to over the long, cold winter will be MVP awards, Hall of Fame voting, and the hot stove. Meaningful baseball is not going to be played for another five months. It’s a sad statement really, especially for those of us who have committed to writing about the game on a daily basis. What are we to do in the meantime (besides rail against Scott Boras, of course)?

One worthwhile suggestion is to spend the winter revisiting the old classic baseball movies. With so many great baseball films out there – Death on the DiamondThe Pride of the Yankees, Bad News Bears, Field of Dreams, Major League, Mr. 3000… – one could easily watch a film a week all winter long without running dry, and it might just be the best night of your week. (Okay, maybe not…)

Whether you decide to spend all winter watching baseball movies or not, it’s still nice to look back at some favorites every now and then. I’m not going to give you a top ten list or anything like that – there have been way too many attempts at that over the years. Instead, I thought it’d be interesting to see how some of our favorite hardball movies were received when they were first released.

The foremost movie critic of the last thirty-plus years has, of course, been Roger Ebert. He’s been reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, and has been synonymous with film for nearly my entire life. Thanks to this wonderful internet-age that we all live in, his entire collection of movie reviews can be found online at his website, rogerebert.com. Using that as a resource, I went through and found Ebert’s reviews of a few of the most popular baseball films of the last three decades. How did he see them at the time? Are our memories and feelings tinted with years of nostalgia, or were these movies just as good when they were new? What did people think of them with a “fresh” pair of eyes?

The Bad News Bears (1976)

It’s been so long since The Bad New Bears was released, and so many movies, tv shows, etc. have tried to copy its formula, that it’s hard to realize just how new and unique it was when it came out. This is what Ebert had to say about it:

The movie’s about a team that’s surely one of the worst ever assembled (although I once played right field for one that wasn’t much better). The kids are uncoordinated and demoralized and afraid of the ball, and wouldn’t be playing at all except that a liberal city councilman has made them a test case. The members include a black, a couple of Mexicans, various other minority group members and, eventually, a girl.

All of this is pretty much as we’d expect it, and there are obligatory scenes in which the Bears finally get their uniforms, Matthau finally shaves, the boys say they won’t wear their athletic supporters until Amanda wears one, too . . . and the team wins its first game. But beneath this entertaining surface stuff, there’s something else going on. We begin to sense how important, how really crucial, Little League is to the adults involved in it. How much emphasis they place on winning.

(Click “Read More” to keep reading.)

The Sandlot (1993)

I would bet that, if baseball fans were asked to name the movie most similar to The Bad News Bears in spirit and subject, the most common response would be The Sandlot. The rambunctious, foul-mouthed kids who aren’t that great at baseball – it seems like a pretty easy stand-in for The Bad News Bears. Ebert might not agree:

If you have ever been lucky enough to see “A Christmas Story,” you will understand what I mean when I say “The Sandlot” is a summertime version of the same vision. Both movies are about gawky young adolescents trapped in a world they never made and doing their best to fit in while beset with the most amazing vicissitudes.

All of these events are told in an original, quirky, off-center, deliberately exaggerated way. This is not your standard movie about kids and baseball. It’s so unconventional, it doesn’t even end with the sandlot team winning the Big Game. This movie doesn’t even have a Big Game. (The one game they play is a pushover.) The movie isn’t about winning and losing, it’s about growing up and facing your fears, and as the kids try one goofy plan after another to get the ball back, the story gently leaves the realm of the possible and ventures into the exaggerations common to all childhood legends.

The Natural (1984)

There are a few key scenes that everyone remembers when they think of The Natural: Roy Hobbs getting shot, Roy building “Wonderboy”, the blood on his jersey, and the exploding light-tower. Sure, there are a few other scenes that are pretty memorable, too, but it’s these four scenes that highlight the “epic-ness” of  The Natural. They are the lasting impression of the movie and they help to frame our opinion of it. Either you can accept the unbelievability of some of this and enjoy the story of a near-mythological “natural” like Roy Hobbs, or you see the movie as much-too-blunt and cheapened by a very “Hollywood” ending. Roger Ebert was of the latter:

Why didn’t they make a baseball picture? Why did THE NATURAL have to be turned into idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford? Why did a perfectly good story, filled with interesting people, have to be made into one man’s ascension to the godlike, especially when no effort is made to give that ascension meaning? And were the most important people in the god-man’s life kept mostly offscreen so they wouldn’t upstage him?

THE NATURAL could have been a decent movie. One reason that it is not: Of all its characters, the only one we don’t want to know more about is Roy Hobbs. I’d love to get to know Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), the cynical, old team manager. Robert Duvall, as the evil sportswriter, Max Mercy, has had his part cut so badly that we only know he’s evil because he practically tells us. Richard Farnsworth, as a kindly coach, has a smile that’s more genuine than anything else in the movie. But you have to look quick.

Bull Durham (1988)

The posters for Bull Durham called it a “romantic comedy about America’s other favorite pastime”. So, is it a “chick flick”, or just a movie about love, sex, and baseball? I know many people do consider it a “chick flick” these days, but I’d argue that that’s because we’ve seen it so many times now that we ignore all of its subtlety and depth and just see it on a superficial level anymore. When seen with a fresh pair of eyes, it is certainly much more than that:

A lot of baseball is played along the way. “Bull Durham” was written and directed by Ron Shelton, who spent some time in the minor leagues, and this is a sports movie that knows what it is talking about. There are quiet little scenes that have the ring of absolute accuracy, as when a player is called into the office and told his contract is not being picked up, and the blow is softened by careful mention of a “possibility of a coaching job in the organization next season. . . .” And there probably isn’t a coaching job, and nobody wants it anyway, but by such lies can sad truths be told.

“Bull Durham” is a treasure of a movie because it knows so much about baseball and so little about love. The movie is a completely unrealistic romantic fantasy, and in the real world the delicate little balancing act of these three people would crash into pieces. But this is a movie, and so we want to believe in love, and we want to believe that once in a while lovers can get a break from fate. That’s why the movie’s ending is so perfect. Not because it seems just right, but because it seems wildly impossible, and we want to believe it anyway.

Field of Dreams (1989)

And then there’s my favorite (and I know I’m not alone). Field of Dreams worked on a lot of levels – Ray and Annie at the PTA meeting, the conversation with Doc Graham, Ray trying to kidnap Terrance Mann – but what we all connected with was its magic. And I’m not talking about the magic of great characters or dialog or anything, I mean the good old fashioned magic that brought Shoeless Joe to Ray and Ray to his dad. The kind of magic that lists “The Voice” as “HIMSELF” in the credits. It’s blatant and unforgiving, and very rare in movies these days, and we all loved Field of Dreams because of it. Including Roger Ebert:

As “Field of Dreams” developed this fantasy, I found myself being willingly drawn into it. Movies are often so timid these days, so afraid to take flights of the imagination, that there is something grand and brave about a movie where a voice tells a farmer to build a baseball diamond so that Shoeless Joe Jackson can materialize out of the cornfield and hit a few fly balls. This is the kind of movie Frank Capra might have directed, and James Stewart might have starred in — a movie about dreams.

“Field of Dreams” will not appeal to grinches and grouches and realists. It is a delicate movie, a fragile construction of one goofy fantasy after another. But it has the courage to be about exactly what it promises. “If you build it, he will come.” And he does.

I have no idea if anyone reading this will make it part of their winter routine to watch all the great baseball movies (I don’t even know if I will, even though my terrific girlfriend and I are pretty stocked up when it comes to quality baseball films), but I hope that revisiting some of these movies and seeing them through a fresh pair of eyes has helped you remember why you loved the movie in the first place. I understand that Roger Ebert isn’t necessarily for everyone but I think it’s pretty hard to argue with anything he said in this list of reviews. If you have any thoughts on these movies (or others), or maybe any thoughts on what Ebert had to say when they were new, feel free to let me know in the comments.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.

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